Social distancing measures in effect in the New York City. Photo by Alexander Chai .
By Lisa M. Goicochea, Alexander Chai
NEW YORK CITY, New York — Teachers across the city find themselves at the heart of an ongoing crisis. With the largest school district in the nation and the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City students, teachers, and parents have been dealing with the transition into remote learning. Whether public or private, educational institutions have become reliant on technology as the primary method of delivering instruction to their students while schools remain closed. Before the pandemic, technology in the traditional classroom seemed like an afterthought. Now educators must adapt and embrace technology, but not without confronting new challenges.
Being an educator during COVID-19 has not necessarily been an easy task. Administrators and educators having little to no time to prepare were hastily forced to switch to a distance-learning format. Aside from the usual role an educator has, depending on their specialty, they may also need to complete separate certifications that allow them to deal with specific individual student needs. Many educators lack this training in this regard. Marisela Velez is a special education teacher that has completed these certifications, and therefore she is now sharing with us her challenges of being an educator during COVID-19.
One of the New York City schools that have transitioned to remote learning. Photo by Alexander Chai
Marisela Velez, a special education teacher in New York City, has allowed us to speak with her regarding the challenges she has faced during the time of COVID-19. Starting with the loss of her father, Velez says, “losing my father played a big role in becoming paranoid where I wouldn’t even open my mailbox for days. Additionally, I began to shop online more frequently, limited my Costco visits to once a month, always washed my hands, and wore a mask plus made sure not to touch my face.” Marisela lost her father, Gregorio Velez, to COVID-19 on March 30, 2020. After a week of fighting off the virus, he was taken to the Mount Sinai Emergency Room, where visitors were no longer allowed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
This experience allowed Ms. Velez a greater sense of empathy with her students during the wide-spread difficult time 2020 has been. Being one of the few people the students encounter regularly, Marisela has had to do her best to educate her students and be there for them as they deal with personal struggles and mental well-being challenges.
Marisela Velez and her late father, Gregorio Velez. Photo by Marisela Velez
When Marisela was asked the difference between working remotely and in an actual classroom, she says, “Working remotely is more difficult than working in an actual classroom. In the classroom, you have periods of 45 minutes. When it is your lunch or prep time, it is apparent that you are not available. However, while working remotely, it is not that simple for the students to know when you are not available.” Since there is a lack of structure in distance learning, this causes students to reach out all hours during the day, including non-school days. In my opinion, it is admirable how dedicated Velez is to her career and making sure she can do everything possible for her students. Velez includes, “My cellphone has to be available at all times because that’s how the kids reach out to me. I created a Google Voice number so the parents and the students can reach out to me.” Finding a balance between work life and personal life can be challenging without setting boundaries.
Marisela speaks to us about time management and self-care
Time management is very critical to ensure educators make enough time for their students and self-care. Educators often become extremely invested in their students' success to the point where they may forget to take time for themselves. According to many educators across the U.S., being the emotional support system for students can be draining but very necessary. Velez states, "Helping my students emotionally is nice, but very draining, especially now dealing with my own personal experience losing my father due to COVID." Many educators go to great lengths to ensure their students show up to class, are mentally and emotionally stable, which shows how vital the role educators play in a student's life during COVID-19.
Marisela shares with us her thoughts about remote learning. By Lisa M. Goicochea/Alexander Chai
Parents and students reaching out to Ms. Velez at all hours of the day. Photos by Marisela Velez
According to the article “COVID-19’s Impact on Students’ Academic and Mental Well-Being” by Youki Terada, “A new study suggests that the coronavirus will undo months of academic gains, leaving many students behind. The study authors project that students will start the new school year with an average of 66 percent of the learning gains in reading and 44 percent of the learning gains in math, relative to the gains for a typical school year.” As a student, I can understand why it is believed that remote learning can delay students. Depending on the style of the class, asynchronous or synchronous, it may be difficult for students to feel a connection to their teacher. Students may also find remote learning difficult if they are not equally equipped with the proper technology necessary. For example, some students may not be able to afford a computer with a built-in webcam and microphone which creates a less engaging environment. Velez supports this statement by stating “I’m limited as to how much I can do for them remotely. In-person, I can do too many things all at once. Remotely, I’m limited as to how much work to give them, what kind of work to give them. Due to the pandemic, there has to be, we have had to modify the lessons, and the length of the lessons. So yes, there is a big difference.” Additionally, Marisela states that she teaches students with “a mixture of disabilities: schizophrenia, bipolar, learning disabilities, ADHD, ADD, defiant behavior in addition to the ESL.”
Marisela speaks to us about some of the challenges of providing education to students with special needs. By Lisa M. Goicochea/Alexander Chai
Referencing Gallup News article, “U.S. Parents Say COVID-19 Harming Child’s Mental Health” by Valerie J. Calderon, “Nearly three in 10 (29%) say their child is "already experiencing harm" to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and closures. Another 14% indicate their children are approaching their limits, saying they could continue social distancing a few more weeks until their mental health suffers.” Velez’s students deal with “a mixture of disabilities: schizophrenia, bipolar, learning disabilities, ADHD, ADD, defiant behavior in addition to the ESL.” Social distancing and the closures of schools can make these disabilities worse.
As a student who has self-motivation to be in school, I can personally say social distancing and school closures have not necessarily impacted me too much because I have found ways to keep the communication between my classmates and professors. I am fortunate to have the technology necessary to continue my education online. It also helped that our professor made it mandatory to keep our webcams on to have a more engaging environment for learning in my critical thinking class.
Marisela speaks about providing emotional support to her students and its importance. By Lisa M. Goicochea/Alexander Chai
The solutions we feel would be helpful to special education teachers would be to make sure they are consciously taking time for themselves. Administrators should make sure their teachers receive the proper training in order to deal with students’ mental health. Hiring more mental health professionals to take the burden off of teachers that are not adequately trained. Prior to COVID-19 mental health was a difficulty that was trying to be resolved. According to the Washington Post article “Restorative circles, online wellness rooms and grief training: How schools are preparing for the coronavirus mental health crisis” by Caroline Preston, “And yet even before the pandemic, many schools were overwhelmed with helping to fill gaps in health services and helping students develop emotional coping skills. Now their efforts may be further complicated by the education system’s looming financial crisis, which is expected to bring layoffs for teachers, counselors, and other school employees who work closely with students and can provide emotional support.” With potential layoffs to teachers, counselors, and other school employees, who will our students turn to when they need emotional support?
Marisela shares her thoughts on what it's like working with limited resources and adapting.